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July 2, 2016
World Chess Championship through the years
By Peter Long
JUNE 30 ― Many people do not know while others have forgotten that the World
Chess Federation (FIDE) was formed to take control of the World Chess
Championship which, till the death of Alexander Alekhine, was essentially the private
property of its holder.
The first “official” world champion was Wilhelm Steinitz but before him was the
legendary Paul Morphy, the so called “Pride and Sorrow” of chess, as he descended
upon Europe from the New World, conquered all in a short time and returned to great
acclaim but he was never to play again.
Steinitz was also probably the first chess professional in that he wrote extensively
about chess for a living. Perhaps this was also necessary to promote himself and he
was eventually surpassed by Dr Emmanuel Lasker who was to hold the title for the
longest time ― all of 27 years ― while combining his work in many fields including
It was Lasker who in his writings paid the highest tribute to his predecessor, attributing
the new school of positional thought to Steinitz although we see more of the attacking
player in his games. It is hard to distinguish what it was that Lasker himself was
teaching and what was from Steinitz.
Eventually the much older Lasker gave way to Jose Raul Capablanca who is till today
considered to be the greatest natural talent the world has seen. At his peak he hardly
ever lost, and his many wins were seemingly effortless.
It took the consummate professional, a man who lived and breathed chess, who
needed it to live, Alekhine, to do the impossible and beat Capablanca and although
he briefly lost the title to Dr Max Euwe, he soon regained it and held it to the very end.
Mikhail Botvinnik, the big hope of the Soviet Union, prepared all his life to take the
throne and did so by winning the 1948 World Championship Tournament held in The
Haque and Moscow with 14/20 and a whole three points clear of the rest. He would
hold the title for most of the next 15 years.
His rivals at that time, David Bronstein, Vasily Smyslov, then Mikhail Tal were all
defeated although the latter two managed to take away his title briefly till he wrested it
back in a return match. Finally Tigran Petrosian prevailed when he lost the right to a
Petrosian was able to see off Boris Spassky the first time around but not the second
time they met. But it was soon to be the end of Soviet dominance with the emergence
of Robert James Fischer ― Bobby Fischer ― who in 1972 beat Spassky in a match
held in Reykjavik and with all the hype of the Cold War, also changed chess forever
by popularising it to unprecedented levels and so making it a truly global game.
Unfortunately Fischer who had since young broken every record imaginable, brought
real fear (and admiration) to Soviet chess while capturing the imagination of the
public, declined to defend his title and sadly became a recluse. Like his uncrowned
contemporary Morphy, he too exibited signs of mental illness.
Anatoly Karpov therefore became world champion by default and perhaps driven by
this fact, then completely dominated the game for the next 10 years by winning more
tournaments than anyone the world has yet to see.
Even after meeting his match in Gary Kasparov whom many consider perhaps the
only rival to Fischer as greatest of all, successfully fought him tooth and nail for
another 10 years.
The brilliant Kasparov, who like Karpov was a student of Botvinnik and also perhaps
more his student than most, but eventually, while still remaining ranked No. 1, was to
lose his title to both his and Botvinnik's student Vladimir Kramnik, and without hope for
a rematch, he eventually retired and is today a prominent right wing politician who
sees himself as a thorn in Russia's Vladimir Putin's side.
Vishwanathan Anand's comprehensive win over Kramnik in their match in 2008 ended
the Soviet-Russia global chess hegemony and while igniting a chess boom in India
that seems to be be going on and on and from strength to strength, also paved the
way for a new breed of world champion in Magnus Carlsen who personifies the
promise of everything his generation can be.
Unless the Kremlin can find or move funds to rent a venue in New York in November,
Carlsen will likely be defending his title in Moscow, Sochi or Khanty-Mansiysk (God
forbid Crimea!) against the big Russia hope Sergey Karjakin who has now returned
into the top 10 at number nine but who remains some distance behind his elder
statesman Kramnik who is at number two.
At the same time, the Women's World Champion Hou Yifan, while not completely
ruling out defending her title, is not participating in the current qualifying cycle and
has said she will not defend a title won in match play in a knock out lottery system
event which awards the very same title she had already previously opted out.
There are certainly interesting times ahead for both the very legitimacy and future of
the World Chess Championships. FIDE also really needs to do a whole lot better with
its crown jewels and the very reason in fact for its existence. FIEXIT?